A Look At The London Olympics Torchbearers

Torchbearers have brought the Olympic flame to London's streets. The relay is wrapping up a 70-day journey from Greece, ahead of Friday's Opening Ceremony. And although it wasn't always this way, the runners carrying the torch come from all walks of life.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And you know that opening ceremony is almost here because the Olympic flame has arrived in London. Torchbearers are carrying it towards Buckingham Palace, then on to the Olympic Stadium.

For a brief history of the torch, here's NPR's Kevin Leahy.

KEVIN LEAHY, BYLINE: At 5:45 this evening, Elijah Kirby, a young Baptist minister, takes charge of the flame.

REVEREND ELIJAH KIRBY: I'm nervous. I don't really get nervous too easily but I'm nervous about this, just because I don't want to fall over. I don't want to kind of do something silly on TV.

LEAHY: The 24-year-old was nominated for his work helping troubled youth in Hartlepool, England.

KIRBY: It's once in a lifetime, isn't it? It's never going to happen again probably for people unless they travel somewhere else to see it. It's a bit of history and they want to be part of that.

LEAHY: That history doesn't go back as far as you might think. This link to the ancient games is actually a modern invention.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWSREEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the magnitude of Germany's display of pomp and pageantry would be fit for the coronation of a king...

LEAHY: The tradition began in Nazi Germany, when Berlin hosted the 1936 Games. Adolf Hitler chose the final torchbearer - a young, fit, blond runner in the Aryan mold.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS REEL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A flaming symbol of international unity on the field of sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEAHY: Of course, that international unity didn't last long. World War II broke out and the next two Summer Olympics were cancelled. When they resumed though, organizers took the torch on a tour through war-torn Europe.

PHILIP BARKER: It was just too good a symbol to ignore.

LEAHY: Philip Barker, author of "The Story of the Olympic Torch."

BARKER: They very soon realized it was something that wasn't just about Germany, but it was about the world.

LEAHY: And the torch has gone global. It's visited six continents. It's been to the top of Mount Everest, and along Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

BARKER: They had a specially designed torch that would burn underwater.

LEAHY: It's even been launched into space, twice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE MUSIC)

LEAHY: All these voyages began in the same place, the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece. An actress dressed as a high priestess ignites the flame using a parabolic mirror to reflect the sun's rays. And so begins a more than two-month journey toward the Opening Ceremony.

The routes have gotten increasingly ambitious. For 2008 Beijing Games, the relay crisscrossed the globe, dogged by protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS AND SIRENS)

LEAHY: Organizers were forced to cancel some routes. This year's relay stayed in the United Kingdom. The goal was to bring the flame within an hour of nearly every citizen. Eight thousand runners were chosen. And the mishaps have been relatively minor; a few pranksters tried to snatch the torch.

And even though it's fueled by a weatherproof propane-butane gas canister, the flame was briefly extinguished on a whitewater rafting trip near London.

If you tune into this week's relay, you'll see that the runners don't actually pass the torch, only the flame.

BARKER: This process is called The Kiss.

LEAHY: Philip Barker says each runner is handed his own torch for the day; a golden triangular cone with 8,000 holes, one for each torchbearer. After the relay, runners are given a chance to buy their own torches for almost $500 each.

KIRBY: And there's this huge debate: Is it OK for the torchbearers to sell their stuff or is it bad...

LEAHY: Elijah Kirby, who's running today, hasn't even laid hands on his torch. But he's already posted an ad for it on eBay. Kirby got one offer of nearly $50,000. He also got some hate mail.

KIRBY: You know, how dare you sell the Olympic Torch? Do you realize how much of a privilege it is?

LEAHY: Elijah Kirby says he does know but living in London is expensive. He wants to donate some of the money to charity, and use the rest for a down payment on a house.

Kevin Leahy, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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